The road to a stronger civil society
The vital roles played by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) in Cyprus have come a long way in recent years but need to be strengthened even further, according to key figures in the civil society world.
“[Civil society] could be talking more. They should be changing the narrative,” said Hands Across the Divide’s media contact person, Magda Zenon. Hands Across the Divide is an autonomous women’s group – including women from both communities – committed to working for peace on the island.
Zenon added that she believes it should be much stronger, however she has been noticing more ‘conversations’ within civil society. “They might not be organised into NGOs and they’re not always the usual suspects. There’s a lot more demand for storytelling.”
Meanwhile, vice president of MASDER (Famagusta Walled City Association) and founder of Famagusta Initiative, Serdar Atai highlighted the significance of a unified approach to achieving a strong civil society. “The key to strong civil society is collaboration across the frontiers with an islandwide perception. It’s very crucial to foster dialogue and enhance cooperation at personal, regional and communal levels. Networking and coalition building, common advocacy campaigns and joint legal actions if needed are the keys to success. Civil society, while having the bigger picture on their mind shouldn’t ignore touching the day to day lives of single individuals in some way.”
Globally NGOs and CSOs are engaged in a wide spectrum of activities ranging from human rights, environmental, improving health, development of a more transparent democratic process, peace and reconciliation and much more. They are also independent from states and international governmental organisations.
Many of the island’s NGOs and CSOs were recently given the chance to demonstrate their valuable work and contribution to society during the Open Door Festival, which ran from September 23 to October 24, with the support of Civic Space and the Festival Organisation Committee. Civic Space – a Technical Assistance Project funded by the EU, aiming to strengthen the role of civil society in the Turkish Cypriot community – organised around 80 events as part of the Festival, aimed at creating awareness of the vital work carried out by the island’s CSOs.
One particularly informative event, highlighting the plight of NGOs and CSOs in Cyprus, was the International Conference On Enabling Environment for Civil Society and 5th Civil Society Forum. Here, some of the more practical issues faced by NGOs and CSOs islandwide – as well as globally – such as funding, were discussed.
“There are new grants available but there aren’t many possibilities. Another way is to have many volunteers in order to reduce the number of paid staff. Sources such as the state lottery and general state budget are also options,” said European Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s (ECNL) program consultant, Luben Panov.
Panov explained that another way of raising funds is by providing a service to a particular public body. “If [a public body] needs help with the elderly for instance, they could hire an NGO that works with the elderly. There are options and of course it depends on the NGOs.”
Tasked with the role of empowering citizens, another crucial role that NGOs and CSOs play is ensuring that citizens get involved in public policy making.
According to Panov, both CSOs and citizens have a very important role, and not just during the election process but also during the legislative process. He highlighted that state officials cannot know everything, and CSOs may have expertise on certain sectors that can be acquired by a particular public body.
“A public consultation might give them more ideas – it might get them to understand the effects of their policy on the people,” said Panov.
This was also highlighted by the NGO Support Centre’s, project administrator, Marilena Kyriakou who said: “We want citizens to be more active and push to get things done on the part of the state and public bodies. This is one of our main aims and our projects deal with this.”
It seems while key civil society members speak with optimism about the future of NGOs and CSOs islandwide, they also recognise the areas in which improvement is very much needed.